Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018's top 10 Picket posts: Cyclorama, Pea Ridge artifacts, unearthed bullet and Custer

I’m grateful for readers’ continued interest in the Civil War Picket. Other responsibilities don’t allow for me to write as much as I’d like, but this year’s 10 most popular posts, per Google analytics, demonstrate the variety of topics you appear to like. We’re excited about 2019 and wish you and yours the very best!

(Atlanta History Center)
10. MAKING THE ATLANTA CYCLORAMA WHOLE: When this treasured piece of city history goes back on public display in February after an extensive restoration, viewers will see the painting as its creators intended. That’s because artists restored two sections of the circular mural that were removed over the years, for different reasons• Read more

9. BEHIND EVERY CIVIL WAR PHOTO THERE IS A STORY: Ronald S. Coddington, an author, magazine publisher and historian, doggedly pursues the back story of thousands of cartes de visite, or small portrait cards, he owns or people bring to his attention. At a show in Dalton, Ga., Coddington interacted with patrons on a number of levels, scanning tintypes, ambrotype images and cartes de visite, networking and weighing in on a card’s value. • Read more

(Library of Congress)
8. SMOLDERING RESENTMENT: Walking tours held a couple times a year examine how volunteer firefighters in Alexandria, Va., dealt with the sweeping Federal military occupation during the Civil War. While the occupation did modernize firefighting – the Yankees brought in the first two steam pumpers – it put locals on the defensive, requiring them to take an oath of allegiance to the United States or use a password to assist in putting out a blaze. • Read more 

(Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation)

7. GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE: A northwest Georgia city hopes a reinvigorated downtown, economic incentives and potential tax breaks will bring new life to a railroad depot that played a small part in the Civil War’s “Great Locomotive Chase.” After this Picket post was written, Dalton officials sold the building to the lone bidder. • Read more

(Civil War Picket photo)

6. THESE 2 SAILORS WENT DOWN WITH THE USS MONITOR. HERE’S WHAT WAS FOUND WITH THEM: They are the kinds of things one might carry in a pants pocket: A rubber comb, a small pocketknife, a wisp of string and a stray button that needs reattaching. While seeming so ordinary, two dozen artifacts under glass at The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Va., tell an incredible story filled with mystery, hope and terror -- a very human story. • Read more

Documentary maker Michael Jordan films diver 

5. CSS GEORGIA DOCUMENTARY GOES DEEP: “Red diver, into the water when ready,” are the first words uttered in a documentary about the recovery and history of the CSS Georgia, which earned the derisive nickname “Mud Tub” when its supporters learned it was too underpowered to attack Federal ships that had bottled up Savannah’s river entrance. • Read more

4. PORTION OF REBEL TRENCH TO BE PRESERVED: A new park northwest of Atlanta will feature the remnants of a trench briefly occupied by Confederates during the Federal army’s push on Atlanta in summer 1864. Experts believe the defensive trench was occupied for a few days by Mercer’s Georgia brigade after Confederates withdrew from the New Hope Church line on June 4, 1864. • Read more

Courtesy of Arkansas Archeological Survey

3. PEA RIDGE EXCAVATION YIELDS TROVE OF ARTIFACTS: Students, volunteers, park staffers and archaeology hobbyists earlier this year recorded and recovered about 1,000 artifacts – most of them related to a ferocious artillery fire exchange – at Pea Ridge National Military Park in northwest Arkansas. • Read more

2. THE BULLET, BALL FIELD AND BATON ROUGE:  Perhaps it was dropped by a young Confederate soldier working furiously to reload his rifle as his regiment advanced in summer 1862. Or maybe a shot fired by the opposing 14th Maine or 21st Indiana regiments missed its mark and drilled harmlessly into the soil. The bullet was undiscovered -- until February. Crews renovating a Louisiana church parcel spotted the artifact in soil excavated for a new light pole at its ball field. • Read more

(Courtesy of Cisco's Gallery)
1. ALL THINGS CUSTER:  A lock of the dashing Union cavalryman’s hair sold for $12,500 at an auction. Whomever wants his Civil War uniform, Tiffany sword and other items captured at the June 1864 Battle of Trevilian Station in Virginia will need to pony up a ton more. (The items are still for sale.)  • Read more

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Gettysburg monuments: Nonprofit partners supporting preservation of 350 memorials

Park staff waxing the Vermont monument (NPS photo)

Two nonprofit groups have matched federal funding so that Gettysburg National Military Park can perform preservation work and repairs on about one-fourth of the battlefield’s 1,300 monuments.

Park officials on Wednesday said that the Gettysburg Foundation provided $50,765 and the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association (GBPA) gave $43,300 in a dollar-for-dollar match, for a total of $188,129 toward the work.

Preservation specialists on staff will continue work on 350 monuments by “steam cleaning stone features and pedestals, repointing and preserving masonry, power-washing and waxing all bronze elements, and repairing and replacing missing or broken bronze features, as necessary.”

The federal funding comes from the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, which provides $20 million in fiscal 2018 from proceeds from the sale of federal helium, to be used for deferred maintenance projects requiring a minimum 50% match from a non-federal source. 

“Public-private partnerships help stretch federal dollars to take care of national parks,” said Ed Wenschhof Jr., acting superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park, in a statement.

Park staff reset the 3rd Massachusetts Battery monument (NPS)

A February 2013 Picket article gave an overview of the work done by monument specialists at Gettysburg.

Among the park’s most popular monuments are the colossal Pennsylvania State Memorial on Hancock Avenue and the Virginia Monument, topped by a statue of a mounted Robert E. Lee looking on at the futile Pickett’s Charge.

“The interesting thing I find about this battlefield is the monuments were erected by the veterans. It’s not that you and I put it up to our great-grandfather,” Lucas Flickinger, head of the monument preservation team, told the Picket at the time. “They fought the battle and put in their time and effort to putting up this monument … It is a testament to that generation they came back and had strong feelings about what they did.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Wrought in fear and just a little desperation, 'Joe Brown' and other pikes made in Southern states never got off the ground

Fragile remains of pike (Courtesy of Old Governor's Mansion)

• First of two parts

The 2003 restoration of the Old Governor’s Mansion in Milledgeville, Ga., yielded a curious – but perhaps not unexpected – find in the attic.

A staff member found the business end of a weapon -- an 18-inch blade that originally was joined to a 6-foot-long wooden staff  -- on the top of an attic rafter. The pikes were named for Gov. Joseph E. Brown, who lived in the mansion during the Civil War and in February 1862 asked blacksmiths and others to produce 10,000 of the primitive weapons.

Recently, the mansion staff posted on Facebook a photograph of the fragile blade, which mansion director Matt Davis said may have been in the attic since the 19th century (the pole is long gone). They asked followers to identify it. While a couple guessed the artifact might be the top of a gate, others were spot on.

“Pike! Rather imaginatively planned to be used against the Yanks by some sort of home guard defending their hearths,” one commenter wrote. “Sherman’s men filled a coffin with them and held a mock funeral.”

Gov. Joseph E. Brown
Though I was aware of the pikes, the post prompted me to dig a little into their history and see whether any are in museum collections across Georgia.

I had two underlying questions: Why would anyone think a pike would be effective against a gun or other weapons? And where did the idea come from? The whole concept seems ridiculous.

The answers are a bit complex, and there is some rationale to the idea, particularly if you put yourself in the mindset of those living at the time.

As a 2012 article in The New York Times’ Disunion series stated, the “pike was hardly ancient history. The Duke of Wellington had put 79,000 pikes in the hands of the Spanish against Napoleon, and they had proved superior weapons against cavalry charges during the War of 1812.”

By early 1862, many of Georgia’s young men were fighting in Virginia and the Western theater, and they had taken most of the state’s guns with them, leaving civilians largely helpless should the Federal army sweep in. “I need to arm every able-bodied person in the state of Georgia,” the governor said of the predicament.

The pike was cheap to produce and could be used at close quarters. As Brown said, they were reliable, suitable for militia, home guard units and able-bodied citizens. A few did make it to the front.

“The short-range pike and terrible knife, when brought within their proper range, and wielded by a stalwart’s patriot’s arm, never fail to fire and never waste a single load,” the governor intoned.

CCC worker with Joe Brown pike at Fort Pulaski (Courtesy of NPS)

Brown is remembered for looking after the welfare of Georgia and soldiers and civilians during the conflict, but his resistance to the authority of the central Confederate government in Richmond helped hinder the overall war effort, argues the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Jim Ogden, historian at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, told the Picket that the actions of Brown and “others advocating the use of pikes at the time of secession and the beginning of the fighting reflects the views of most at the time that any war would be short and with little bloodshed, that the other side did not hold their convictions very strongly at all and would give up as soon as they were shown how strongly the opposing side held theirs. They also reflect the fact that so quickly the size of the military forces mobilized outstripped the supply of arms.  They are or can be a window into that era.”

But it wasn’t just a shortage of arms that inspired Brown and other Southern governors to order the manufacture of the spears. There was something even larger: fear of rebellious enslaved persons.

Travel back in time to 1859, when the country was fractured over slavery and Southern states were on the verge of secession. Radical abolitionist John Brown, while raising money to launch an anti-slavery campaign in the South, hatched the idea of raiding the federal weapons arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia).

Brown’s contingent took with them nearly 1,000 “John Brown pikes” that were intended for an army of slaves to take the fight to plantation owners. Brown’s mission failed and there’s some question of how many slaves actually took up the pikes during and after the brief clash at Harpers Ferry.

Regardless, the discovery of the pikes whipped up anti-North sentiment across the South.

Edmund Ruffin, a pro-slavery and secession extremist, obtained several pikes and sent them to governors with the message, "Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern Brethren.”

Brown embraced the pike as a defensive weapon after the Confederate loss at Fort Donelson, Tenn. The governor believed that “Had 5,000 reserves thus armed and well trained to the use of these terrible weapons been brought to the charge at the proper time, who can say that the victory would not have been ours.”

About 7,000 of the pikes were made in Georgia, while arsenals in Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama turned out the spears.But they were treated as little more than a novelty, a relic of strategies abandoned for the more dashing and inspiring offensives of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia,” according to the Disunion article.

“It really served no practical military purpose,” said Davis of the Old Governor’s Mansion, which is on the campus of Georgia College. The mansion's pike has occasionally been put on display.

A cache of Joe Brown pikes was found in 1980 where Wilmington & Manchester Railroad cars were destroyed in South Carolina during a federal attack in April 1865, at war’s end. 

Reproduction naval boarding pike at Old Fort Jackson (OFJ)

Today, there’s a scattering of pikes at Civil War and other sites in Georgia. Some are not associated with John or Joseph Brown, such as naval pikes. 

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park near Atlanta has a pike on display.

The Atlanta History Center has a half dozen in its collection. “We have two of the retractable type, which are generally assumed (to be) Confederate,” said senior military historian Gordon Jones.But as you probably know, every pike is either a ‘John Brown’ or a ‘Joe Brown,’ or sometimes both. It’s like dark splotches on flags – always blood.”

CSS Chattahoochee pike (Courtesy of NCWNM)

Jeffery Seymour, director of history and collections at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga., said the venue has two naval pikes, both on display.

One was recovered from the wreck of the Chattahoochee, a Confederate gunboat that was scuttled and burned nearby. The museum has two Joe Brown pikes in storage.

Pike of undetermined origin, with replacement shaft  (NCWNM)

The National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, near Columbus, has two pikes that are believed to be Confederate. Senior curator Jefferson Reed said one is a Joe Brown retractable pike; the other is a cloverleaf.

The collection of Old Fort Jackson in Savannah has reproduction naval pikes, which were wielded to discourage enemy sailors from boarding a vessel, said staff member Dianna Jowers.

Fort Pulaski National Monument outside Savannah has a retractable Joe Brown pike in storage, says cultural resources specialist Laura Waller.

The Civil War site came into possession of the weapon in the mid-1930s, shortly after the fort was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service, and major repair work and rehabilitation were undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

A park description of the “rare” item mentions old church bells and iron from homes across Georgia were donated in order to manufacture the pikes. “The blade, when not in use, may be lowered into the hollow staff, but by release of a safety catch the blade is freed and may be snapped out into position for action where it is firmly held in position by another metal catch.”

CCC workers show off the Joe Brown pike at Fort Pulaski (NPS)

By autumn 1864, after Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman had taken Atlanta, the Confederacy was heading into its last throes, and there was no spirited or effective resistance to the March to the Sea. Offensive attacks across the Confederacy had largely failed. The pikes were gathering dust.

Sherman’s legions in late November took Milledgeville, then capital of Georgia. By then, Gov. Brown and his staff had fled. Yankee troops held a mock legislative session, declared “deep sympathy” for Brown “as now departed” and planned a symbolic funeral.

Soldiers used a box that held 100 pikes as a casket.

“They found Joe Brown’s pikes, and arming themselves with these, they formed a procession, arms reversed, marching to the tap of the funeral drum through the main streets. Stopping at the Baptist church, of which Joe Brown was a member, they there stacked their arms… and listened to a very pathetic funeral discourse.”

Joe Brown would live another 30 years and people filed past his body in the newer Capitol in Atlanta. Numerous pikes survive him.

COMING SOON: The “John Brown pike.” The roots of the weapon, intended for a slave revolt, go back to Kansas.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Refurbished Napoleon gun is rededicated

Several thousand dollars was raised by a Boy Scout in order to refurbish a piece of history located in the Walnut Grove Cemetery in Ohio. A cannon used in the Civil War now has a new place to rest following the building of a new carriage. Several people made a recent visit to the historic cemetery in Martins Ferry to witness the rededication of a 12-pound Napoleon. • Article

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

CSS Georgia: Five years after the recovery of thousands of ironclad artifacts began in the Savannah River, no museum has committed to putting any on display

Uniform belt buckle recovered a few years ago (USACE)

On a summer day in 2017, representatives from museums across the South took a short boat ride to a barge not far from downtown Savannah, Ga. There, they got a first-hand look at artifacts and casemate belonging to the CSS Georgia, an ironclad floating battery on the Savannah River that kept any Union marauders away during the Civil War.

The scattered remains of the scuttled Confederate ship had been moved by the US Army Corps of Engineers as part of a massive harbor-deepening project. What might be called the modern effort to salvage the ironclad began with the symbolic raising of a piece of casemate -- protective armor made up of railroad track iron -- in November 2013.

The US Navy -- which essentially owns the vessel -- was encouraging these museums to “obtain a vision” on how they might display cannons, armor, a propeller and countless other items once they had undergone conservation.

It’s been more than 16 months since that visit, and no loan agreement has been reached with any of the institutions, which must weigh the costs of building or maintaining a structure that can securely hold the items and safeguard their condition. While conservation continues in Texas, the artifacts, at least for now, will remain out of the public view. 

The Picket recently contacted the Naval History and Heritage Command for an update on the endeavor. The emailed questions were answered by Shanna Daniel, a conservator with the command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch Conservation Lab.

Dahlgren gun in 2015 (USACE)
Q. What is the status of conservation of CSS Georgia artifacts, from Naval History and Heritage Command's perspective?
Conservation is one of the most important elements of underwater archaeology as artifacts recovered from underwater require special care and can vary in condition, depending on the environments from which they're recovered. The artifacts’ material makeup, such as wood, iron, brass, ceramic, are also important considerations in the conversation process. Thus, conservation takes time to ensure overall stability of artifacts. That said, conservation continues with artifacts recovered from CSS Georgia at Texas A&M University's Conservation Research Laboratory (CRL) to ensure long-term stability for curation and display.

Q. Are all items still being held at Texas A&M, or are some in new locations, i.e. US Navy facilities? Are any currently on display, or scheduled for display?
A. Many of the CSS Georgia artifacts are currently undergoing conservation treatment at Texas A&M University CRL but some have completed the treatment process and will be shipped to the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) in Washington, D.C. at the beginning of next year for curation.

Q. Has any decision been made on the disposition/display of the artifacts -- all or any portion? If so, what are the details?
A. As CSS Georgia artifacts finish conservation at Texas A&M CRL, they will be shipped to NHHC for curation and available through the NHHC Archaeological Loan Program to institutions or museums that meet the loan requirements. They'll also be made available as needed to researchers interested in viewing the collection. No official request has been made by a potential institution for a loan of CSS Georgia artifacts.

Q. What is the command's current view/goal for display of the artifacts?

A. One of NHHC's mission objectives is to share the Navy's history and heritage. In the case of archaeological artifacts, we accomplish our mission by making it possible for eligible and qualified organizations to borrow and exhibit artifacts for public display. Placing the CSS Georgia collection at a suitable location that meets the loan requirements to display and curate the artifacts would meet that objective, and provide the public a unique look into the naval history of the United States, as well as American naval ship design and employment. This collection tells an important story from our history that, until recently, was lost in the waters of the Savannah River for more than 150 years.

A portion of the armor casemate in 2017 (Picket photo)

Q. Is the command in active communications with any institutions? 
A. We did receive initial interest from various museums about the collection, but they have not corresponded with us in some time. As mentioned before, we regard our archaeological artifact loan program as one of our most important tools for sharing America's rich naval history and heritage with the public and are happy to discuss the program with qualified institutions.

Q. If so, are you at liberty to name them?
It would be inappropriate to discuss an artifact loan during the predecisional phase (Click here for a list of institutions that were invited to see the artifacts in 2017).

Q. Pending any loan agreement, would the Navy likely display any artifacts on its own, or does the command believe they will stay in storage until any agreement?
A. There are no internal Navy plans to display the collection at this time. However, artifacts from NHHC's collection are frequently used by our network of 10 official Navy museums in their exhibits. For example, the National Museum of the U.S. Navy recently opened an exhibit featuring artifacts recovered from the wreck of World War I cruiser USS San Diego (ACR 6).

Monday, November 26, 2018

In pursuit of a Confederate deserter

The story of Pvt. John Futch, a North Carolina soldier who wrote a series of remarkable letters before he was executed for desertion, is the subject of a Dec. 4 meeting of the Brunswick Civil War Round Table. Civil War historian Peter S. Carmichael will give his presentation, “Tracking down a Confederate Deserter after Gettysburg," during the meeting at Caswell Beach, N.C. • Article

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A shiny ball that rested atop Missouri courthouse survived Confederate bullets and vandals who messed with it later

(Civil War Picket photos)

I’ve written about a few oddities since I launched this blog in 2009. There’s the tree peppered with artillery canister, a newspaper printed on wallpaper and a cannonball that legend holds was the first lobbed on Fort Sumter.

A visit to northeast Missouri this week brought a new member to the club of unusual items. Tucked inside the courthouse in Marion County is a copper sphere pocked with bullet holes fired by Confederates.

This shiny artifact in Palmyra has quite a history.

Visitors to the town will see a monument just outside the building remembering the Palmyra Massacre. Ten men, a mix of Confederate soldiers and Southern sympathizers, were executed by a Federal firing squad in October 1862 when a missing Northern sympathizer was not returned.

Bloody Missouri was perhaps the most divided state during the Civil War, and Palmyra was known for its sympathy for Southern secession. Federal troops occupied the town and chased Rebel raiders, made up of troops and guerrillas.

Confederate Col. Joseph E. Porter was on a recruiting mission in mid-September 1862 when he rode into Palmyra and freed about 65 prisoners from the old county jail. They seized the presumed Yankee informant; he was ostensibly killed while returning home.

The sphere sits in a corner of the courthouse, which itself is a trip back in time. Tile flooring leads residents and visitors to county offices with their function hand-stenciled onto the door windows.

The sphere was placed atop the second county courthouse in 1855 and witnessed the raid in which Porter and his men of the 1st Northeast Missouri Cavalry also seized weapons and ammunition. 

“As they left town, they decided to have a little fun, so they shot at it,” said the late local historian Corbyn Jacobs. The sphere contains several bullet holes and cracks.

The sphere sat in the basement for years after a new courthouse was erected in 1900. In the 1930s, it was placed on a pedestal on the front lawn. “It was abused and disfigured” over the years and disappeared until it was found by Jacobs in the late 1950s, according to an exhibit in the courthouse.

Years later, the sphere was reshaped and repaired and returned to the pedestal. “It took vandals just one night to destroy the efforts of many to preserve history. The sphere was dented and knocked from its base.”

The decision was made to put the ornament on a walnut base beneath the courthouse rotunda. It has been protected from further damage and ignominy since 1988.

Carol Brentlinger, curator for the old Marion County jail across the street, said she usually tells visitors to go check out the sphere.

“It is an unusual piece,” said the Heritage Seekers Historical Society member.

The jail she manages held five prisoners that Col. John McNeil, who commanded the Union’s 2nd Missouri State Militia, ordered executed for the presumed death of Andrew Allsman. Five more Southern sympathizers were brought from nearby Hannibal to complete the number to be shot.

Old Marion County Jail (Heritage Seeks Historical Society)

When no word came from Porter about Allsman, the 10 men were taken from the jail to the fairgrounds. Only three died instantly; the remainder were finished off with pistol shots.

McNeil was labeled the "Butcher of Palmyra," and despite his explanations, remained the subject of bitter feelings during and after the war. Porter, whom McNeil considered a bushwhacker, died in battle a few months after the Palmyra incident.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Before the Iwo Jima flag-raising, these fellows unfurled Old Glory atop Lookout Mountain. That moment will be re-created this month.

(Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Ranger-led hikes, artillery demonstrations, programs and the re-enactment of a flag-raising will be featured in this month’s commemoration of the battles of Chattanooga, termed the “death knell of the Confederacy.”

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in Tennessee and Georgia has events planned in and around the city from Nov. 23-25.

“155 years ago, months of fighting culminated with a series of battles throughout the Chattanooga area,” the park said in a press release. “By the time the smoke cleared, Orchard Knob, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and Ringgold Gap were strewn with the wreckage of war, and the Confederate Army of Tennessee was in full retreat.”

The Federals held Chattanooga, the “Gateway to the Lower South,” which became the supply and logistics base for Sherman’s successful 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

Among the commemoration highlights is an event set for 9 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 25. Living historians will recreate a flag-raising by the 8th Kentucky Infantry (US) on that date in 1863, one day after three Union divisions assaulted Lookout Mountain. By midnight, it appeared Federal forces had prevailed. A general wanted Old Glory to be planted on top of the mountain.

Capt. Wilson (Library of Congress)
The next morning, with sunshine burning off the mist, a half dozen members of the 8th Kentucky, led by Capt. John C. Wilson, climbed up that morning to plant the flag. While they feared being shot upon, they found the ground had been abandoned by Rebel troops.

“(The soldiers) carefully ascended the summit of Lookout Mountain and entered present-day Point Park. Finding it abandoned by Confederates, they walked out on the point of the mountain. Perhaps foreshadowing the US Marines on Iwo Jima 82 years later, they unfurled an American flag from the commanding heights,” the NPS said.

Capt. John Wilson, who led the party, later remarked, ‘It was the highest flag that was planted during the war...and we were the lions of the day in the Union Army.’”

A newspaperman gave this account of the response:

“The right of the Federal front, lying far beneath, caught a glimpse of its flutter, and a cheer rose to the top of the mountain, and ran from regiment to regiment, through whole brigades and broad divisions, till the boys way around in the face of Mission Ridge passed it along the line of battle.”

A photographer asked the heroes to re-enact the moment with gallant poses on the craggy heights. After the battle, Lookout Mountain became the single-most photographed place during the war. Photographer Royal Linn and others took countless photos of soldiers and civilians standing dangerously close to the edge of outcrops.

Historic entrance to Point Park (Library of Congress)

The gallantry of the 8th Kentucky soldiers is now being remembered – 155 years later. The National Park Service said visitors can come to the Ochs Museum in Point Park atop Lookout Mountain to capture the moment. The flag-raising also will be shown live on the park’s Facebook page.

Printed schedules for the November programs are available at the Chickamauga battlefield and the Lookout Mountain Battlefield Visitor Centers, and a digital schedule, including times and descriptions, is available online at:

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The trauma endured by Civil War POWS was passed on to their sons. Here's what experts say about study that found a genetic link.

Union soldiers in the trenches at Petersburg (Library of Congress)
Trauma experienced by a father, it turns out, can be passed along to the next generation -- in a perhaps unexpected way.

A new study has found that postwar sons of many Union POWS had shorter lives than sons of soldiers who weren’t held captive during the Civil War. And it suggests an interesting genetic explanation.

Dr. Dora Costa led a team that used military, pension and other records and determined that by age 45, sons of POWs who suffered severe privation and trauma at Confederate prisons were 11 percent more likely to die at any given age than sons of men who were not imprisoned.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that these sons were more than twice as likely to die at the same age than their brothers born before the conflict. The researchers said the excess mortality of younger sons was largely from cerebral hemorrhage and cancer. The paper said the deterioration of Rebel prisons after inmate exchanges ended increased the trauma on captives (after mid-1863).

Because a father’s POW status had no impact on the health of daughters, the researchers determined something else was at play: the Y chromosome belonging to males.

“I originally thought the key factor in the children’s longevity would be socioeconomic status,” Costa said in a news article at UCLA, where she is on the faculty. “But then I started to notice the effect was only happening in the sons -- which is in keeping with an epigenetic cause -- and only to the sons born after the war.”

Epigenetics is the study of inherited biological triggers that affect genes and how cells in the body react to genetic information, but that do not alter underlying DNA sequences. Basically, the study found that fathers’ prison hardships, including food shortages, altered the function of his genes in ways that could be passed on to sons.

A Los Angeles Times article on the study had this to say about maternal nutrition offsetting that paternal stress. “The life-shortening effect of a father’s POW status was magnified for the sons who were born in April, May and June, when food supplies tended to be leanest. But that effect virtually disappeared among sons born during September, October and November, when harvests are in and food is typically more plentiful.”

The Picket reached out to several Civil War prison experts to comment on Costa’s findings. Here’s what they had to say:
MICHAEL P. GRAY: Where you were imprisoned matters

“Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among Civil War US Civil War Ex-Prisoners” is an interesting study, but I am not sure how much this really tells us about entire post war-prisoner narrative, nor true consequences of Civil War incarceration on generations beyond. 

This analysis adds to a conversation started by Dr. Angela Riotto, historian at the Army University Press, who has addressed such numbers in her scholarship, particularly with Civil War prisoners and PTSD, which ultimately led to suicides. “Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among Civil War US Civil War Ex-Prisoners” would be greatly improved under the lens of a professional historian, like Riotto, so a better historical framework might be understood.

Although the article lacks historical context on a number of fronts, it does raise a variety of questions. In its grand scheme, the sample size is too small. The analysts write “2,342 children of 732 no-exchange period ex-POWs, 2,416 children of 715 exchange-period ex-POWs, and 15,145 children of 4,920 non-POW veterans, all born after 1866 and surviving to age 45.” However, more than 56,000 prisoners died during the conflict, and even that number most likely falls short of the actual amount of deaths. Moreover, the comparative with non-prisoners would be so large and daunting in tracking down family members generationally, it might seem impossible to even try. But at the very least, the authors do make an attempt.

However, their statistics are taken from sanitized pension records that might not deliver on the true experience of their captivity. Perhaps more investigation might be taken from other primary sources?  Furthermore, they need to address what prisons their sample size comes from. They write, “Thirty-five years after the end of the war, camp survivors faced greater mortality and health risks and had worse socioeconomic outcomes, if they had been imprisoned when camp conditions were at their worst compared with non-POW veterans and ex-POWs imprisoned when conditions were better.”

Andersonville prisoners in August 1864 (Library of Congress)
Well, they are assuming they were at their worst, but this may not be the case at all prisons.  

Civil War prisons were very unique and diverse and socio-economic not only come into play after the war regarding health concerns, but during the war. For example, the death rate at Richmond’s Libby Prison would be much lower to that of Georgia’s Andersonville. Or, if we venture into the North, the death rate at Elmira was 25% and Johnson's Island less than 2%. The authors might want to consider the difference between the enlisted men’s prison, like Andersonville and Elmira, to that of officer-only prisons, like Libby and Johnson's Island -- where death rates were lower, since “class” mattered.

Besides socio-economics in captivity, the authors generalize a bit, writing “Most POWs were exchanged immediately until mid-1863…”  This is not the case, as prisoners might be held for some time before being officially exchanged. The authors conclude, “There is growing concern that health can be transmitted across generations, leading to the persistence of poor health and socioeconomic status within families.” This might be very true, but what about the common Civil War solder campaigning in Virginia during 1864? And how would you track their sample size from a generational standpoint? Did Civil War captivity mean that your children were going to be in poor health?

This reader is not convinced as there are too many limitations and variables in their findings. But they have added to the conversation, and one only hopes their work will continue to add to the Civil War incarceration narrative.

Gray is professor of history at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. He has extensively studied Civil War prisons and is the author of a new book, “Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered.”

LANCE GREENE: Epigenetic effects getting more attention

The recent study looks at Union veterans of the Civil War who were held in POW camps late in the war and who suffered horrible conditions during their captivity. It also looks at their children and compares them with the children of Union veterans who served in the war but were not POWs. The study focuses on the effect of paternal POW trauma and attempts to identify the impact of negative effects on their children and identify the cause of these impacts.

The study focuses on possible epigenetic effects. Epigenetics is a study that has grown dramatically in the past decade. It studies how changes to a person’s genetic expression occur without changes to the DNA. For example, exposure to carcinogens may alter genetic expression by inhibiting the release of an enzyme. There are also natural occurrences in the body that can cause similar changes. Although these kinds of events do not change a person’s genetic make-up (DNA) they are potentially inheritable traits. Therefore, these changes that occur in a person’s life can be passed on to their children.

For their research, the authors collected data on almost 5,000 adult children of 1,400 Union POWs and data on 15,000 children of 5,000 non-POW veterans. Most of the data came from military, pension, and census records. The authors performed statistical analysis using the Cox proportional hazard model, which looks at a variety of traits (e.g. paternal POW status, sex of the child, socioeconomic status, birth order, maternal and paternal lifespan, etc.), and calculates the impact on survival of these different traits.

Lawton exhibits at Magnolia Springs State Park in Georgia
The results show a significant difference in mortality rates for the children of Civil War veterans. Boys born after the war to men who had been POWs were 1.10 times more likely to die than the offspring in the other categories, including children born to POWs before the war, girls whose fathers had been POWs, and boys whose fathers were Civil War veterans but who had not suffered the conditions of prisoners.

Because they looked at so many factors, the study suggests that having a POW father did not have a negative impact on your financial status but had a delayed negative impact on health. Excess death of sons was largely due to cerebral hemorrhage and to a lesser extent cancer, in the states where cause of death was recorded.

The study also makes a strong argument that the effects on sons were not driven by the behaviors of their father; those negative impacts did not affect the daughters of POWs or their sons born before the war. It strongly suggests an epigenetic effect, one that was passed on through the Y chromosome and therefore to sons only.

The study is important in many respects. Dr. Costa’s previous research has shown conclusively that the trauma suffered by these POWs had significant negative impacts on their health after the war. This research goes one step further and shows the continued intergenerational impact. It also supports a growing body of literature on the significance of epigenetic effects.

Greene is an historical archaeologist with Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He was the first director of the Camp Lawton research project, based out of Georgia Southern University. Camp Lawton held Federal prisoners for six weeks in late 1864, but did little to ease the suffering of POWs moved from Andersonville.

RYAN McNUTT: Socioeconomic, other factors should be considered

I'm not necessarily surprised by the findings that the POW experience of harsh physical and psychological trauma could have an effect on descendants; previous research suggests this possibility for Native Americans and Holocaust survivors. However, there are problems with how some of these relate to epigenetics, as well as issues like small sample size, and some papers not addressing sociocultural factors, like the transmission of trauma via family stories and accounts, rather than through genetics. 

And in fact, this was one of my concerns with the article. I don't disagree with the premise that there is likely an epigenetic transfer of trauma -- but I'm not convinced the mortality correlation in sons of POWS from the non-exchange period can be satisfactorily linked to this, because it doesn't address some pretty big socioeconomic factors.

The non-exchange period in the article for example (between July 1863 and July 1864), corresponds almost exactly with the Enrollment Act, or Civil War Military Draft Act, enacted in March 1863. Every male citizen, and immigrants who had applied for citizenship, between the ages of 20 and 45, were required to enroll. Substitutes and commutations by those who could afford it meant, arguably, that the burden of military service fell on immigrants and lower classes to a great degree. The perception of this unfairness of the act led to the New York City draft riots in July 1863. And, indeed, it's likely that the first batches of draftees would have begun entering into the POW system in July of 1863, just at the period that exchanges stopped. 

My suspicion is that the high mortality rate of offspring of non-exchange period POWs is tied to this lower socioeconomic status of their fathers, rather than any causative link to experience trauma. Furthermore, cerebral hemorrhage is a catch-all term for cause of death in the early 20th century, so it is difficult to parse how this may be connected to the father's poor health.

Students conduct Camp Lawton field work during 2015 field school (GSU)
Finally, while the fact that sons of ex-POWs were 1.11 times likely to die (I'm not sure where the 11 percent is coming from -- I couldn't find it anywhere in the article) than the sons of non-POWs is statistically significant, it's still not to my mind high enough to prove a causative link for higher mortality rates outside of socioeconomic and psychological factors. 

It's very clear from the postwar career of ex-POWS that many of them struggled with ongoing health issues, almost certainly PTSD, and various other psychological issues as a result of their confinement.

This impacted their ability to keep employment, as did the massively high levels of substance abuse among veterans, including POW., all of which would have a down-the-line effect on the quality of life for their children, particularly the sons who may have had to shoulder more a of a burden of caring for the family both through adolescence, and into adulthood. And the lack of a similar mortality rate among daughters is par for the course: by the 1900s, the death rate for men was twice as high as for women. So the lack of a similar mortality rate for daughters of POWS is in line with other demographic trends of the day, as opposed to being a comparative marker for their male siblings’ epigenetic shortened life spans.  

It's a very interesting article, and I certainly think epigenetic transmission of historical trauma is a worthwhile avenue of research, but I'm not convinced that epigenetic transfer of trauma is sole direct causative reason for higher mortality rates among the children of ex-POWs.

I think that there are a host of socioeconomic, cultural, and historical factors that were not considered with due weight in the interpretation and conclusion -- which to be fair, the authors acknowledge as potential issues in their discussion. 

McNutt is assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro and director of the university’s Camp Lawton project. His research in conflict archaeology have included sites in the United Kingdom, France and Poland.

DEBBIE WALLSMITH: Trauma seeps down to new generation

The article by Costa, Yetter and DeSomer is very interesting and provides the foundation for future research on POWs from other wars.  It is not surprising that being a POW would result in long-lasting effects.  However, it was not expected that these effects would impact the health of their sons. In some cases, the former POWs had difficulty returning to civilian life but there were some who became very successful.

A common factor among most of them was that they had health issues related to the malnutrition and diseases they experienced while imprisoned that plagued them the rest of their lives.

It is not surprising that both physical and mental health issues would have affected family life. Although many died while relatively young, some POWs lived into their 80s and 90s.

Wallsmith is environmental review archaeologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division. She has researched prisoners held at Camp Lawton and has maintained a database about them.

The Camp Lawton POW database contains the names of 3,750 men. Age at death information is available for 680 former POWs. Age at enlistment ranges from 13 to 53. The youngest to die was 16, the oldest was 98. The table below indicates the age ranges at which those men died:

Age @ death
# dead
20 or younger
21 - 30
31 - 40
41 - 50
51 - 60
61 - 70
71 - 80
81 - 90
91 - 100